Journey to Freedom is a unique elephant sanctuary where a small group of volunteers have the chance to spend an unforgettable week with a herd of five elephants in the remote jungles of Northern Thailand. With plenty of time to observe elephants and learn about Karen culture, this project offers an amazing adventure.
After the 1989 ban on logging, the Karen saw no other choice but to lease their elephants to trekking camps where they were often mistreated and overworked giving rides and performing, leading to physical and psychological injuries. Journey to Freedom was created to make it possible for the Karen to bring their elephants home to live in the jungle near their village where they can enjoy socializing with each other, foraging on native plants, and live a more natural existence.
As a volunteer, you will have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of elephants and people in the local community. Some of the activities you and your group will take part in include planting and cutting grass for the elephants, preparing medicinal health balls, teaching English at a local school, as well as helping to protect the forest and working on projects designed to improve the lives of local people. You will also have plenty of time to observe the elephants in their jungle habitat and take part in educational and fascinating elephant-friendly activities. An experienced guide will be on hand to guide you through the days and impart interesting facts about the elephants. Before leaving the project on Sunday morning, a Buddhist blessing ceremony will be held by the Karen to thank volunteers for their participation.
By choosing to volunteer at this project, you will be supporting the shift towards responsible, ethical elephant tourism that is sustainable over the long term and is allowing these elephants to live a more natural life as well as supporting the Karen people.
Experience the privilege of being with elephants in their jungle habitat where they are most at home and help support the local Karen community
Volunteer Project Details
Number of Guests: 15
Number of Elephants: 5
Tour Type: One Week Volunteer
Fitness Level: Moderate
Age Suitability: Adults 16+
Volunteer Project Price
Adults 16+: 15,000 Baht per week
* Minimum of 4 volunteers required to open this program *
Location, Accomodation & Meals
Nature in the Jungle
About Your Volunteer Program
Start: Monday 8:00am – 8:30am – please arrange your own transportation to come at our Chiang Mai office around 8:00am. Volunteers can pay the outstanding balance for their visit, complete the insurance form, and provide a copy of your passport at our office. The minivan will leave from the office for Journey to Freedom between 8:30am – 8:45am.
Travel Time: Around 2.5 hours (safety video en route to project).
Transport Details: Transfer from an air-con minivan to a 4WD pickup for the last 30 minutes of your journey to the project.
Return: Arrive back in Chiang Mai city on Sunday afternoon 1:00pm – 1:30pm.
Duration: One week only. Volunteer positions start on the Monday and end on Sunday.
Accommodation: Volunteers stay in shared traditional style wooden housing. There are beds in the rooms each with a mattresses under a mosquito net and bedding is provided. One shared room has 6 beds and the other room has 5 beds. One hot water shower, 2 cold water showers and 3 shared toilets are located near the house. There are 2 traditional style bamboo bungalows at the entrance of the project for couples with a private bathroom. Electrical outlet plugs are available for charging devices, etc.
Facilities: Dining area overlooking rice paddies with hammocks, gift shop selling Karen style shirts and traditional pants, coffee & tea, cold water dispenser. Bottled water, soft drinks, and beer are available for purchase at the shop.
Items Provided: Free Journey to Freedom t-shirt, rubber boots, & ponchos in the rainy season.
Baggage / Luggage Allowance: One standard check-in sized rucksack / suitcase / bag & one day pack per person.
What to Bring: Overnight bag with change of clothes for 7 days, long pants and long-sleeve shirt, gardening gloves, hat, sunscreen, sandals/flip flops, change of clothing for river bathing, towel, walking shoes, camera, insect repellent, flashlight & personal medication.*Bring clothing and items suitable for wet weather if visiting in the rainy season (June – Nov). If visiting in the cool season (Nov – Feb), bring some clothing suitable for cold weather. If you would like to bring items for the local school students such as pens, coloring pencils, notebooks, games, toys, etc. they will be much appreciated.
Travel Insurance: Volunteers are required to have travel insurance covering medical expenses and emergency repatriation.
Vaccinations: Please contact your doctor or vaccination centre in your country for details on recommended vaccinations.
Operational Months: All year round.
Age Suitability: Adults & teenagers over 16 (participants younger than 18 years of age must be accompanied by a legal guardian).
Fitness Level: Moderate – daily walks through the jungle – sometimes up steep hills in muddy conditions.
Topography: Jungle, mountains, hills, grassland, rice paddies & stream.
Location: Mae Chaem, South of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
Nearest Airport: Chiang Mai (CNX) – we recommend you stay in Chiang Mai city the night before your volunteer week begins. Please note that we cannot collect you from Chiang Mai Airport – only from your Chiang Mai city hotel or guesthouse.
Booking Details: Bookings close 3 days before you are due to visit. When booking online, a 30% non-refundable deposit is required to secure your booking. The balance can be paid by cash or credit card (+3%) at our Chiang Mai office on Monday morning – the day that your volunteer stay commences. Please note that for this volunteer project we do not offer a pickup from your hotel in Chiang Mai so on the reservation form under Name of Hotel / Guesthouse & Hotel Address, please write Chiang Mai office, 3/2 Ratchamanka Road.
How You are Helping as a Volunteer
Tips on Local Culture & Location
The Herd at Journey to Freedom During Covid Times
The Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns severely impacted tourism, and there were no volunteers at Journey to Freedom for over two years. During this time, the elephants spent most of their days in the jungle, foraging on natural vegetation, taking mud baths, cooling off in the stream, and interacting as a herd.
With no income from volunteers, it was difficult for this small ethical elephant project to meet the high costs of caring for the elephants, providing them with sufficient food, and paying the mahout’s salaries. Thanks to the generous support of US based NGO, Trunks Up, and all of their generous supporters, Journey to Freedom was able to meet the needs of the elephants and make sure they received a healthy diet as well as the occasional treat of baskets of fruit and vegetables thanks to donations, which they always appreciated.
Thank You for Supporting the Herd at Journey to Freedom
The Covid-19 crisis caused severe challenges around the world and placed extreme limitations on travel. As a result, Journey to Freedom was closed from March 2020 and just began to welcome back volunteers in mid 2022. We would like to thank Save Elephant Foundation and Trunks Up for their incredible support of the elephants and our ethical elephant project during the past few years. We are so grateful for your ongoing kind support.
The owner of this project Bo Tu, is a Karen man who grew up around elephants from a young age. He was born in Mae Chaem and grew up learning about elephants from both his grandfather and father who worked with and cared for elephants. The older elephants at the project have been in his family for his entire life. The project is run with the help of Bo Tu's wife, Air as well as family and relatives from the nearby Karen village. Journey to Freedom is home to 5 female elephants, Non Pong, also known as Mae Bu Sii (35 years old) and her daughter Gee Lee (3 years old), Honey, also known as Mae Yui (28 years old) and her daughter, Buay (9 years old) as well as Boo Jaan a 50 year old female elephant. The 3 older elephants used to do logging and riding in the past and Nong Pon and Honey performed in shows also. The younger elephants Gee Lee and Buay have never worked. Since coming to Journey to Freedom the elephants have gained weight, and are much happier and healthier thanks to being able to interact freely as a herd and roam in their natural jungle habitat.